This March, during spring break, 24 members of the HDS community traveled to Mississippi as part of the ongoing effort to rebuild a gulf coast region ravaged by Hurricane Katrina. The group—made up of students, faculty, and staff—spent a week living and working in the town of Ocean Springs, Mississippi, a small coastal community about 100 miles from New Orleans. HDS alumna Julia Weaver, '91, currently serves as an alderman on the town's city council. Weaver has spent the last seven months coordinating much of the area's reconstruction and helped guide the HDS group's efforts during their stay.
The volunteers, who split their time between manual labor and casework, lived in one of the region's largest relief and distribution centers, a former warehouse now owned and operated by the Lutheran Episcopal Disaster Response. In addition to their relief work, volunteers also bore witness to the vast scope of the damage, including a visit to New Orleans with HDS alumna, Paula Smith, '05. A New Orleans native, Smith gave the volunteers a tour of the city, including a visit to the city's devastated Lower Ninth Ward.
For many, the journey was not only a powerful reminder of Hurricane Katrina's devastating impact on the region, but also an opportunity to put religious commitments into action. Upon returning from the trip, several members of the HDS group took the time to reflect deeply upon the event, collecting their thoughts in the form of personal essays, poems, and meditations.
When the Moment Passes
A wave of anger, emanating from the depths of my belly, surges up and brings a bitter taste into my mouth,
I sink back into the seat of the van, shrinking down under the weight of what I see around me.
Piles lying along the sides of the streets, conjure up details and sacred moments and everydayness of people driven from their lives
Hollow houses, once full of teeming life, wait quietly for their fate
Spirits of deeply rooted souls linger on the street corners, unable to move on into their future
I scan the faces of those around me, my new-found mates on this journey of discovery and reparation.
Scowls, disbelief, tears, concern, and anger mirror my own fierce range of awakenings
I have to feel the feelings, there is really no choice but to claim them
and bring them to a more even resting place where I can put them to work towards Tikkun Olam
"Come and See"
A reflection on my trip to the Gulf Coast as a volunteer in the Katrina relief efforts, March 25-31, 2006
I have just returned from a trip to Ocean Springs, Mississippi. I traveled there with a rather motley crew of students from my graduate school who had chosen to spend their spring break assisting in the ongoing relief efforts from Hurricane Katrina, one of the deadliest and most expensive natural disasters in U.S. history.
Though it dominated the media for weeks after it made landfall on Aug. 29, 2005, coverage of Katrina has dwindled in the news. When we hear updates on the situation in the Gulf Coast, they are generally negative: the government isn't doing what it should do to respond, institutional inequalities built into the society are reifying the region's intense segregation and marginalization of its poorest and most vulnerable members, and so on. To be honest, except for these occasional reminders of a nasty situation, Katrina had somewhat waned in my consciousness, and I wasn't sure what to expect from this trip.
I certainly wasn't expecting the extent of the damage still visible even from the plane, as we circled out over the Gulf to prepare for landing at the Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport. Piles of rubble and huge swaths of land laid bare were visible even from several thousand feet in the air, like gaping, festering wounds on the body of the nation. Once on the ground, throughout the week we would observe up close the intense devastation that ravaged the coastline from Mississippi to Louisiana: homes swept entirely off their foundations and reduced to piles of rubble, other homes still intact but destroyed by floodwaters, environmental destruction in the form of pollution of marshlands and coastal waters. Most striking to me was the sheer vastness of the damage; on Sunday we took a trip to New Orleans to observe some of the damage there, and at some point it struck me that we had just left an intensely damaged area, driven an hour and a half on the interstate, gotten off, and we were still within an intensely damaged area. And all this seven months after the fact.
On Monday we had our first real day "in the field," out cleaning up debris in a disabled elderly woman's backyard. As we picked up trash one piece by small piece, I began to think about the miles upon miles of people's homes and yards strewn with bricks, chunks of drywall, shingles, washing machines, microwaves, mattresses, clothing, lawn mowers, file cabinets, children's toys, Christmas tree ornaments... and.... and.... and!!!........... at some point it all began to feel like too much. Simply overwhelming. We could see a minute level of progress in this one person's yard, but how many more were there out there like her? Thousands upon thousands. The situation seemed hopeless and never-ending, especially with a fresh new hurricane season looming on the horizon in just a few months.
And yet, alternatively, at other moments I would feel a surge of hope. Looking at a large pile of rubble we had gathered at the end of a day, it felt we had made some small step of progress toward recovery and rebuilding, and we had made a difference, however small, in one person's life. While the social, political, and structural issues surrounding the devastation of the area were indeed depressing reminders of the thick morass into which the area has sunk, the intensely personal and individual interactions we had cleaning up the area one person's yard at a time showed another, more hopeful reality: things are moving forward, with the slow but steady rhythm of many small human connections and cooperations.
I would not have known any of this had it not been for the invitation of this trip to "come and see" the damage for myself and to get my own hands dirty in a very physical connection and expression of solidarity with these fellow human beings and Americans to whom I am interconnected on a wider scale. As I was beginning to reflect on my experiences on this trip, that phrase—"come and see"—began to ring in my mind. As is often the case with many things in my life, I seem to find biblical allusions and verses surfacing in my consciousness that help me to name the sense of structure and meaning I often sense in even the most seemingly hopeless and chaotic situations. This is one such occasion.
"Come and see" seemed to be an apt theme for my little stint on the Gulf Coast. A quick glance at a biblical concordance turned up four passages where the phrase "come and see" pops up in the Gospel accounts—interestingly enough, all in John's Gospel (sensing a literary theme here, anyone??).
The first two passages (John 1:35-39 and John 1:43-46) are stories of Jesus' initial calling to some of his disciples. It seems particularly significant that this phrase, "come and see," pops up twice in this context.
John 1:35-39 – From the Calling of the First Disciples
The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, 'Look, here is the Lamb of God!' The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, 'What are you looking for?' They said to him, 'Rabbi' (which translated means Teacher), 'where are you staying?' He said to them, 'Come and see.'
Here, Jesus asks the disciples what they are looking for, to which they respond, "where are you staying?" At first, this seems a rather odd response; do the disciples really want to see Jesus' home or place of temporary lodging? Aren't they seeking after more than that? And rather than respond to or acknowledge the apparent peculiarity of the request, Jesus' response is simply, "come and see."
This passage is a bit puzzling to me, but perhaps it is significant that the disciples do ask Jesus where he is staying as a means of learning more about him and as their first act of following him. To see Jesus' living quarters was to learn something about him, to become a bit closer and more intimate in their knowledge of his work, ministry, and identity. And Jesus invites them into this intimacy with the simple words, "come and see." In Mississippi and New Orleans, we were invited to "come and see" the homes of many strangers, learning more about them and inviting us into service for them.
John 1:43-46 – From the Calling of Philip and Nathaniel
The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. And he found Philip and said to him, 'Follow me.' Now Philip was from Beth-sa'ida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathaniel, and said to him, 'We have found him of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.' Nathaniel said to him, 'Can anything good come out of Nazareth?' Philip said to him, 'Come and see.'
In this passage, Philip answers Nathaniel's doubts about the likelihood that a person from Nazareth can really be such a great leader. Nazareth was not exactly a well-respected area in biblical days; in some sense Jesus was from the "wrong side of the tracks." Nathaniel gives voice here to the dominant preconceived notions and prejudices about the filth and worthless scum that come out of Nazareth, and rather than being countered by any flashy arguments or debates, Philip simply says to him, "come and see." Rather than trying to convince him of Jesus' greatness, he simply invites Nathaniel to come and see for himself, to have an actual encounter with Jesus before judging him or dismissing him based on preconceived notions. Perhaps the Ninth Ward of New Orleans is the "Nazareth" of my little spring break story. "Can anything good come out of the Ninth Ward?" someone may ask. Come and see.
John 11:30-35 – From the Resurrection of Lazarus Story
Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, 'Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.' When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, 'Where have you laid him?' They said to him, 'Lord, come and see.' Jesus began to weep.
This passage is from the story of the resurrection of Lazarus. Mary and Martha's brother Lazarus has just died, and they have gone to seek out Jesus. (Shortly after this passage Jesus goes to their home and raises Lazarus from the dead.) In this passage the "come and see" is addressed to Jesus, rather than being about Jesus. In this case, Jesus is not what people are invited to come and see, but it is Jesus who is invited to come and see the death that has befallen this family, and we are told that it "greatly disturbs" him and that he weeps upon encountering death here.
This passage is particularly poignant for me as I think about the death, literal and psychological and emotional, that is ravaging the Gulf Coast even still today (we were told that the suicide rate is up 900 percent in the area). In the face of such horrific suffering and a maddeningly chaotic situation, perhaps we and other people of faith can call in voices of deep pain and lament for God to "come and see," to witness and be present to the pain, the mess, and the devastation on the Gulf Coast. And to me, it is comforting to think that Jesus would be "deeply moved" at the pain of those whose lives were lost either during or in the aftermath of the storm. (I know I haven't dealt with the theological issues around what role God plays in controlling or not controlling natural disasters, but I don't really want to open that can of worms at the moment!! That's for another time and place.)
John 4:27-29 – From the Story of the Samaritan Woman at the Well
Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, 'What do you want?' or, 'Why are you speaking with her?' Then the woman left her water-jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, 'Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?'
And finally, this last passage is the tail end of the famous story of the "Samaritan woman at the well" who meets and speaks with Jesus. This encounter broke down the societal boundaries and norms of the time: to be seen talking to a Samaritan, from one of Israel's enemy nations, was scandalous, let alone for a man to be seen talking to a woman alone. The unnamed woman is floored (even forgetting her water jar at the well) by her encounter with Jesus and goes back to tell the people of her city, "Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!" (referring to Jesus' omniscient knowledge of her past). After this life-transforming encounter, she invites the people of her city to "come and see."
And I would extend that invitation to all of you, people of my city (or of my "virtual," online communities). To all of you who have asked me how my trip was, "come and see." It is obvious that the media can never be an entirely accurate mirror of actual experience. Even if we all felt we were affected by Katrina by seeing the reports on TV and so forth, those of us who don't live in the affected areas didn't really understand or comprehend the damage and the social situations there and cannot really do so unless we physically take our selves, our bodies, our minds, and our emotions to the place and encounter it head-on. I once read somewhere that when reporters would ask Mother Teresa about why she worked amongst the poorest of the poor in Calcutta, she would tell them simply to "come and see." Sometimes words are not adequate or even appropriate; some things you simply must "come and see."
Obviously everyone in the country will not be able to afford, financially or otherwise, to take time to go down to the Gulf Coast. But any and all people who can afford to do so should. "Come and see," or at least talk at length with someone who has gone and seen, directly, firsthand.
This trip was my own "encounter at the well," and I come back with the message to "come and see"—come and see the overwhelming devastation and destruction. Come and see the social inequalities and institutional racism that persist. Come and see the power of the human spirit to triumph over adversity. Come and see the real-life effects of far-removed governmental legislation that is not always in the best interests of the people. Come and see the bonds that can be created between strangers when they work together toward a common goal. Come and see, as the Frederick Buechner quote from which I derive the title of my blog says, the "muck and misery and marvel" that is the post-Katrina Gulf Coast. And may it be a transformative encounter for you as well.
Further reflections on serving others (my trip to Ocean Springs, Mississippi, to help with Katrina relief efforts and my work with the Cambridge Outdoor Church)
Several weeks ago, I found myself inside the home of what appeared to be a fairly well-off couple on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. The home was located in a country club–like area, and we drove past several golf course holes as we navigated the secluded, winding streets to the front door.
On the outside, the home and yard looked beautifully intact, but the inside was completely gutted. Flood waters from Hurricane Katrina had destroyed everything inside the structure seven months ago. I and several other Harvard Divinity School students had been sent there to help this couple prepare their floors for carpeting to be put back in. We were on a service trip to aid in the Katrina relief efforts.
The difference between this stately, 4,000-square-foot home, which included both an upstairs and a downstairs fireplace, and the small, rickety homes we had observed several days before on a trip to New Orleans was striking. It was as if we had stepped into a different planet. The minute we walked in the door, I could feel my fellow students bristle. One mumbled, "I think maybe these people could have afforded to hire people to do this work for them...??!?"
I, too, was uncomfortable. There was already another volunteer group hard at work, and we were extra hands that didn't seem quite so needed. One of my fellow students was put on window-washing duty. In a back room of the house, I noticed that there was a pool in the backyard. I couldn't help but think sarcastically, "Oh, they need their windows washed so that they can see their pool better!"
In the nearly three hours I spent methodically sweeping up dust from the wood floors to prepare them for carpet, I did a lot of heavy thinking. I realized that I didn't know anything about these people's financial situation and had pre-judged them based on the size of their home. Maybe the home was an inheritance, maybe they had sunk all their money into real estate as an investment and weren't able to be as free with their money as we would have assumed. Maybe they were doing wonderful advocacy work for the people who were much worse off than they after the hurricane.
And then I realized that I was trying to create scenarios under which these "callous rich people" that I had constructed in my mind might become humanized, generous benefactors or perhaps also financially strapped themselves, and thus be more deserving of our help. In my mind, I needed to have a reason why these people needed my help; it needed to be justified in my mind. It wasn't enough that there was a need, I had to make sure it was a worthy need.
I began to realize just how much our society is centered on deciding who is "worthy" and who is not, who is "deserving" of certain benefits or punishments and who is not. Practically every law and many of our day-to-day decisions revolve around making those moral and ethical judgments—Who is worthy? Who is deserving?
I struggle with this kind of judgment in my regular work as a volunteer with the Cambridge Outdoor Church, the homeless ministry that I have written about here previously. Some of the people we encounter on the streets seem to be making no effort to get jobs and/or housing. Some genuinely seem to not want to! Does that then make them "unworthy" of our help? What message are we sending if we continue to "support" perpetual homelessness by feeding people every week who make no attempt to find the means to pay for their own food? Should we give sandwiches only to those who are making an effort to get "back on their feet" and into a job? Should our help to these people be conditional? (So as to not feed into dominant stereotypes about homelessness, I should add as a disclaimer that many people we meet on the street are concerned with getting jobs, an apartment, and often want to do something for us in return for our generosity.)
Before I became involved with the Outdoor Church, I used to rationalize in all kinds of ways the reasons that I never gave money to homeless people or made any attempts to help them in any way. "Well, they'd probably just spend the money on alcohol," was a much over-used tagline I had picked up from common parlance. While on a foreign study trip my senior year in college, I remember vividly a conversation I had with a fellow student (who happened to be Catholic) about my struggles with these issues, after being confronted with highly visible poverty on the streets of various cities in Turkey. I wanted to help the poor, I felt a deep calling to do something, and yet I didn't know what good it would do to give money to "these people," if "they'd just spend the money on alcohol anyway." My fellow student answered me, "Well, we don't have any way of knowing how they will use the money. But Jesus didn't say, 'give to the poor only if they use the money in a certain way'; he simply said, 'Give to the poor.' Period. So, that's why I always try to give if I can, even if I don't know how the money will be used."
Her comments stuck with me for a long time, and eventually led me to become involved in the homeless ministry that I now do. But even today, her words ring poignant with me whenever I fall into that sticky business of placing my own judgments of "worthiness" onto those whom I serve.
Basically, it all comes down to this question: is the love I give going to be conditional or unconditional? And as a flawed human being, I know the only honest answer I can give to that is that it will be conditional. But Jesus calls us to work toward a radically different vision, a vision of unconditional love. It is this message of grace that first drew me to the heart of the Christian gospel, and what keeps me coming back time and time again.
The message of grace can be utterly confusing and confounding to a world that is mired in measuring and calculating who is "worthy," who is "deserving," and who "qualifies"—for this aid, for that scholarship, for this welfare program, for that job. In the face of a world that picks up the measuring stick and asks, "Are you good enough? Do you 'deserve' this?" we are faced with a Savior who loves us unconditionally. Instead of asking if we are good enough, God merely accepts us as we are, and calls us his beloved. We are BELOVED of God. We. Humanity itself!! I don't know if you've done any reading of the news lately, but in case we've forgotten, this is a pretty radical idea. The behavior we humans exhibit much of the time does not seem very "worthy" of approval or being beloved. And that's precisely the point.
So much of religion—both within Christianity and outside of it—is based on an idea that if we are simply "good" enough, if we work hard, do good things, and serve God and our neighbor, this will bring salvation, in whatever form. I hate to bring up the classic "faith (or grace) vs. works" debate, but for all my intellectual awareness of the nuance and complexity of various world religions and the fact that there is often a continuum or tension between faith and works in many religions, I still am struck by the radical message of grace that can be found in much of Christian theology. (Notice I say can be found, because other messages can certainly be found there as well that support the idea of the importance of doing good deeds in order to gain salvation. Indeed, in one of the passages of scripture that speaks most deeply to me, Matthew 25, Jesus speaks of what seems to be a very works-conditional kind of salvation: "Then he will say to those at his left hand, 'You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.'" [Matthew 25:41-43])
Brennan Manning, a former Catholic priest who has written extensively about grace, writes that the gospel of grace is "scandalizing." And indeed, it is. What does it mean to accept people unconditionally? Could God love the 9/11 hijackers in the same way that he loved Mary Magdalene or any of Jesus' other early, devoted followers? Are we to forgive, and, what's more, even accept one who has murdered our loved ones, or consciously destroyed the sacred creation through pollution, or callously pursued his or her own economic self interests at the expense of others, and so forth? Are we to withhold our forgiveness and acceptance until a person has shown sufficient remorse over their actions, or are we simply to forgive unconditionally? Should I only help the 4,000-square-foot home-owner if he or she is "deserving" of my help?
Somehow it seems too easy to simply affirm that God sends a message of unconditional love and acceptance, but since we, as human beings, are not God, that it's ok for us to give and receive love, help, and service conditionally. Certainly, as I admitted earlier, unconditional love is to a certain extent impossible in human relationships. But does this mean we should not strive toward that goal, to always keep in mind the model that God has set before us and constantly attempt to correct our tendencies toward selfishly withholding service to others by remembering the model of unconditional service to all as set forth in the person of Christ?
By striving to serve people unconditionally, I do not mean to suggest that we should ignore the structural inequalities that exist within our society. It is not an "either/or" question, it's a matter of "both/and." Though I used some of my volunteer hours to help sweep the floors of a 4,000-square-foot home, that does not mean that I should feel that by doing that, I have "done my duty" in helping with the relief efforts and ignore the plight of the evacuees from the Ninth Ward in New Orleans, for example, who are not sweeping floors to prep their homes for new carpeting, but for the most part are still living in makeshift FEMA trailer parks. One problem with being able to help some of the lower-income residents of the area with direct service was that many of the worst-hit had become virtual ghost towns. We couldn't have gone and cleared debris from these abandoned homes; there was no one there to help! The people from these neighborhoods had larger problems than some mattresses strewn about in their backyards.
This is why I feel so strongly that it is important both to "come and see," as I wrote about in my earlier entry, to get your hands dirty and pick up debris piece by piece, but also to step back and see the larger picture, and try to step in on another level of service: advocacy work, in whatever form. Learning more about the social and economic issues facing the region, helping to raise awareness, lending whatever kind of support possible to efforts to rebuild in an economically, socially, and environmentally sound and just manner.
But in order to do this kind of advocacy work, it is vital that we have gone and seen. Our work in this world must be a constant movement between action and reflection, between direct human-to-human contact and dealing with abstract and all-too-inhuman institutions and bureaucracies. We must keep "getting our hands dirty," whether literally (as in Mississippi!), or metaphorically, in staying in direct contact with the people for whom we are advocating, in order to do the job of advocacy well. How can we presume to speak for someone if we never speak to them?
And despite the fact that our dealings in those "all-too-inhuman institutions and bureaucracies" will necessarily be couched in terms of "deservedness" and "worthiness," we can try to live our everyday, human-to-human lives as if we operate outside that model of worthiness/unworthiness. The state may not agree to give financial assistance or housing vouchers to a particular person, but the state can't stop me from giving them a sandwich and a smile and treating them like a human being. Stepping outside of our judging and categorizing modes of thought, we can choose instead to serve human need wherever we find it, whether it be sweeping floors for a person who owns a 4,000-square-foot house or giving food and warm clothing to a person whose home is the very streets of Cambridge.
M. Christian Green
Understanding Katrina: Theology, Ethics, Praxis
Draft Course Proposal for Fall 2006
This course will examine, in an interdisciplinary fashion, the theological, ethical, and practical problems presented by Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the city of New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast in the summer of 2005. Underneath the over-arching theological themes of invisibility, marginalization, otherness, suffering, resilience, transformation, and hope, we will examine myriad facets of the past, present, and future effects of Katrina—with particular attention to issues of race, class, gender, poverty, health, environment, labor, and the ethics of relocation and rebuilding. As a course in practical theology, the course will examine theological, literary, and cultural dimensions of these problems; press toward a richer social, ethical, and political understanding of the storm and its effects; and suggest resources for pastoral, political, and community-redevelopment interventions in the aftermath of Katrina and similar disasters. The interventions component of the course will particularly focus on the ethical dimensions of care and community service provision, particularly when providers of care and service come into a community from outside. This course is informed in part by the relief and recovery trip taken by Harvard Divinity School students, faculty, and staff in spring 2006 and should be of interest to students with theological, political, and ministerial interests in helping communities recovering from natural disaster, war, and other instances of violence and disruption.
Tentative and Partial Reading List:
- Michael Eric Dyson, Come Hell or High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster (2006)
- Jim Wallis, "What the Waters Revealed," Sojourners Magazine, 34:10 (November 2005): 8-17
- Bible (Job, prophetic literature, and selections on poverty)
- John M. Barry, Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America (1998)
- Michael Harrington, The Other America: Poverty in the United States (1962)
- Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1950)
- Cornel West, Race Matters (1993) and Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight Against Imperialism (2004) (selections)
- Russell Ferguson, Out There: Marginalization and Contemporary Culture (1992) (selections)
- Emilie M. Townes, ed. A Troubling in My Soul: Womanist Perspectives on Suffering and Evil (1993) (selections)
- Lucinda Marshall, "Were Women Raped in New Orleans? Addressing the Human Rights of Women in Times of Crisis," Off Our Backs, 35:9/10 (September/October 2005): 14-15
- Linda Butterbaugh, "Why Did Katrina Hit Women So Hard?" Off Our Backs, 35:9/10 (September/October 2005): 17-19
- Delores S. Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk (1995)
- American Journal of Bioethics, "Ethics in the Eye of the Storm" (special issue) 5:5 (September-October 2005)
- Emilie M. Townes, Breaking the Fine Rain of Death: African American Health Issues and a Womanist Ethic of Care (2001)
- Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (2004)
- Douglas Brinkley, The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast (2006)
- T. L. Vidrine, Suffering Katrina: Personal Stories from Hurricane Katrina's Survivors (2005)
- Susan M. Moyer. Hurricane Katrina: Stories of Rescue, Recovery, and Rebuilding in the Eye of the Storm (2005)
- David Bentley Hart, The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? (2005)
- Terry C. Muck, "Karmic Event: Buddhists and the Tsunami," Christian Century, 122:4 (February 22, 2005): 8-9
- Selected Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist writings on the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami
- Nation (special issue on Katrina) (September 26, 2005) (selected articles)
- City & Community, 5:2 (June 2006) (special journal section of articles on New Orleans and Katrina)
- John P. Kretzmann and John McKnight, Building Communities from the Inside Out: Toward Finding and Mobilizing a Community's Assets (1997)
Wars, hatred, and oppression will continue as long as we see the world in terms of "us" and "them." I remember saying this to my uncle on our drive from Las Vegas to L.A. the summer before I came to HDS. We were discussing the Iraq war, politics in general. He responded that he had no problems seeing "them" as "us," with the exception of the "lazy, welfare" sector of society; people who did not work to their potential and contribute to society at large. He didn't really get it.
I thought of this conversation a few times during our week in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. How many different "thems" exist? We categorize people based on race, gender, class, occupation, social status, nationality, sexual orientation, and citizenship status. The indications of where one belongs are both overt and implicit; what one wears, where one sleeps, how one talks, walks, looks, how/if one earns a living, who one knows, etc., etc.
I thought I was above all of that. I thought I was a true egalitarian in mind, heart, and soul. Working at the social services clinic taught me that I am not; and I now wonder whether it is possible to be, entirely. The "other" is necessary for identity formation of the individual. All of the indicators of one's identity to oneself and to the outside world are more than mere inherited human faults from a previous un-enlightened era. Both the choice we make in life and one's lack of choices in life say something about one's identity, how one relates and moves in the world. A lack of choice, per se, is not a negative indicator—the values of our society interpret it as negative. That is a subtle difference, but an important one.
I believe there is a difference between "otherness" and seeing the world in terms of "us" and "them." The former is an imperative of self-identity; the latter a seeming insurmountable wall preventing a truly peaceful world. I cannot deny the importance of community identity, which requires a certain amount of "us/them" thinking. Yet, is it not possible to identify differences, understand differences without passing judgment on those very differences? Is it not possible to value the distinctions that make us unique, as both individuals and communities, without valuing one above the other?
I have always been a bit of an idealist. The ideal that I hope humanity can achieve is even more difficult than I have previously allowed myself to admit. Walking amid the subtleties of "us/them" and "otherness" can be dangerous; those who choose the journey must be prepared for painful lessons. Yet, to my mind, the alternative would be to settle for the unacceptable. And that is even more dangerous, more painful.
Quardricos Bernard Driskell
Imagine a Village!
This village consists of families, friends, and even older friends from one's childhood. A place where distant relatives live, work and play. People who went to school together their entire lives, neighbors who watched you grow, and others who helped you grow. A village where a walk down the street meant a friendly greeting. A place where everybody knows your name, and you're not a stranger to anyone.
Novelist John Berger writes in his essay "The Storyteller" that all villages tell stories, stories of the part, even of the distant past. Berger is correct. Each village has a story, whether it is a common story or a shared experience. In a village, a person's personal experience is seen as part of a collective experience—a grand narrative taken from a larger collective wisdom.
Berger goes further to mention that what happens during the day is recounted by somebody in the village and that the stories are indeed factual because they are based on observations by people within the village.
But what happens when the village is dispossessed and displaced?
Now imagine the village aforementioned no longer in existence. The village where one would walk the street and people would call you by name. This village is known to the nation as the Gulf Coast of Mississippi and Alabama and the Lower Ninth and Seventh Wards of New Orleans, Louisiana.
Now imagine the same village where two sisters once lived. The younger sister had a heart attack before their village was destroyed. The sister who had the heart attack is now raising her granddaughter because the child's parents died as the village was wiped out. Now because the younger sister is sick, the relatively healthy and older sister has to take care of not only her grandniece, but also her younger sister, in additional to repairing their house in New Orleans. They have been displaced to Ocean Springs, Mississippi.
I heard these stories through the Christus Victor Church. It is the site of the Lutheran Disaster Relief Services, a faith-based, nonprofit agency that accepts no federal or state funds for the social services they provide. My job as a volunteer was to obtain general information from clients and the circumstances that have led them to request financial assistance.
When was the last time you heard Fox News, CNN, or even C-Span mention anything about the displaced people in the Lower Ninth Ward or in the Gulf Coast? What will you do after having gone to see the dispossessed?
Who will tell their stories?
Where are these people's storytellers?
From Solidarity to Hope, with Some Ecological Considerations:
Neo-Reflections on Katrina Relief Trip
What first surprised me when we arrived in Ocean Springs was the amount of pain, suffering, affliction.... Many individuals, seven months later, were still in shock. How can one dare to evaluate people's sorrow when they are (still) in distress? The question resonated among us for some time. And what I've learned during my fieldwork as a hospital chaplain came back from my memory: it is absurd to discuss the value of these realities. It hurts, and we, who were not injured, must hear it as such.
If my presence, my simple presence, could help to alleviate that pain, that's already a great achievement. But how? I did not know. Just by mere presence, I suppose. To forgo these beaches where I could have enjoyed myself. To forgo the comfort of a nice house somewhere where I could have rested. To forgo in order to make myself present—I think that's what led me down there, to Mississippi. Of course, the curiosity to discover a new area, another face of the United States, was not hindering my choice to come here, to Ocean Springs. But the deep reason why I went was just that: to be a presence, a witness, someone who may acknowledge what happened here and express some solidarity.
I wish I could have been closer to people down there, that I could have shown more sympathy. More compassion. But I wanted to work with my hands. And further my "presence" by making a video that would be a more lasting witness to what we lived there, as a group. I don't know if we helped much with our handiwork. I can testify that we made a difference, however. A little one, perhaps, but a difference. Especially for the people around the marsh. It does not look the same. If the ocean is composed of drops, well, we were one drop.
I say "we." I love to say "we." Because that was also part of this experience: to live together, people from the Divinity School, in an utterly different context. How are our studies embodied in people's lives? Because I believe that studying religion is like studying music, we often play/embody what we learn. Hence my question: how do people translate what they learn into what they are? What are the challenges there, also? We have our fragilities. Our weaknesses. And so how do we go about with them, within us and with others'? At last, how do we respond to misery?
In trying to respond, I realized, maybe once again, that it is impossible to measure the pain of others—silly me. I could not help but compare that natural catastrophe with the tsunami and the Pakistani earthquake, and judge how "lighter" it was here.... But how dare I? On a large, abstract ,or mathematical scale, perhaps one can say such thing. But on the plain human level, when a woman lost all her belongings, who can dismiss her pain in the name of greater pain? The lesson was strong for me.
On the other hand—and I assume here that we do indeed have two hands—I cannot dismiss hope either. Yes, life goes on. And more than that: life demands to be celebrated. After feeling pain, one has the right, if not the duty, to seek beauty and joy again. Even the ones who have died, I think, would ask all human beings not to cry eternally, but to rejoice once again on that wonderful planet, at some point in their lives—when? It behooves each one of us to state the end of our grief. This world is (also—chaotically) amazing, and we must not merely rely on its disgraces.
In retrospect, I realize how crucial our passage to New Orleans was to me: it confirmed my faith. Not that I agree with what happens politically there. No. But what I've tasted are smiles, music, happiness. If crucifixion happens again and again, resurrection recurs daily. That tension is meaningful to me. And that Sunday night, I experienced it by myself—unfortunately—while listening to a little group of music in Angeli's, on the outskirts of the French Quarter. With my little herb tea, at night, I savored their jazzy élans. And I dreamt. Eyes opened.
I've been angry at the world as it is for years now. At some point, I thought I had to digest that anger once and for all. But no, no. To contest injustices must be vindicated as such. We must raise our voices and feel indignation in front of things that can be changed. This trip was raising in some a lot of indignation—that I shared in my heart. But at that hour, that night, I needed to be filled with hope: not despair nor anger, but confidence that our world will be better one day, and that we can make a difference in it.
Simultaneously, I hold, anger and hope, grief and joy, circulate through our lives. "What a great chance it was to rejoice in this hour!" I thought—because what followed over the next day was not automatically making me happy. On the contrary, in cleaning the marshes, we did not only find refrigerators and photo albums from homes around, but also junk domestic devices left there for ages. I could not help but think that our Western society consumes too much and does not care enough about how these objects will not disintegrate in order to be part of nature again. We spoil our planet. We consume it deliberately too much. And Mother Earth is coughing. She had a way to wash herself up before, when metallic stuff did not exist. The natural "disasters" in humans' eyes are natural showers for her. Their purpose is to regenerate the environment. So she cleans up after us—and sometimes at our (life) expenses. But for how long? Now, even if she wants to clean up, things are not biodegradable anymore. They will remain, and stack up, for ages.
I do not follow theodicy discourses that emphasize the will of God in these moments. God is innocent. Mother Earth was just taking a shower, and the consequences, this time, have been disastrous for our species. And when God saw that, God cried. But could not do anything. Some things in Creation have been set up in a way that nobody can change now—not even God. To a certain extent, God remains fragile, limited, at the mercy of both Creation and human freedom. Indeed, God cannot make a triangle with four angles.
This is how God loved the world, I say to myself. Love is not about diminishing, but about elevating. God limited his/her power in order to open a space for us, human beings. God desires that we become his/her equal, like co-assistants, co-creators. God counts on us for taking care both of Mother Earth and of all of us, who may go under hardship at times.
Even though we are far from God's Kingdom on Earth yet, I am sure God's delight in us has been enhanced a little, down there in Ocean Springs. While the betterment of Mother Earth's health has also to be taken care of, God's fragility continuously gives birth to solidarity among us and hope for a better future.
I found the crucifix buried in the dirt under a pile of heavy bricks. We had been digging through the heap of rubble that was all that remained of Miss Margaret Brou's house. The crucifix was about eight inches tall, with a Jesus figure whose arms had broken off, but whose feet were still nailed to the cross. I could tell it was not just a toy, as it was made of some kind of metal, bronze maybe. I reverently brushed the dirt aside. I took it to the elderly and disabled Miss Margaret, who had been watching our work. "Miss Margaret, I found this," I said. With tears in her eyes, she thanked me and took the crucifix, setting it tenderly on the cushion of her walker. I asked if it was special to her. "Yes," she replied. "It came from my mother's casket." I put my arm around her. "God bless you," she said. "And you," I replied softly. It had come from her mother's casket, and I had pulled it from the dirt under a pile of bricks.
Miss Margaret's house was on the border of the first marsh that we restored. There were two kinds of debris cluttering the marsh: There were fallen tree limbs and driftwood, and then there were the objects of human origin: water heaters, bathtubs, plastic bags, photo albums, linoleum, t-shirts and telephones. We removed the second kind from the marsh, but left the first, because it was part of nature's grand plan. It would prevent flooding and erosion, and eventually decay and feed back into the ecosystem. Nature knew what it was doing with a hurricane.
A few weeks ago, Professor Matthew Myer Boulton asked our class to discuss whether one could confess on behalf of others. I questioned the redemptive power in that, supposing that other than nurturing a sense of compassion and solidarity with the sinner, there would be little point. But as I untangled countless plastic bags from tree branches, as I dug shingles and paint cans and vinyl records out of the muddy marsh, something changed. It may not have been my trash, but I felt spontaneously arising in myself this prayer: "I am sorry. I am sorry that we do this."
At the end of the day there was a beautiful green marsh where before there had been, in essence, a junkyard. I knew that the few bags of trash I hauled out of the marsh could be seen as insignificant. And yet, my efforts felt like an offering.
A Reflection on Tenderness
As I hurried to get my wallet before one of our nightly adventures, I walked past some of my "roommates"—30 or 40 young Lutherans from suburban Chicago, sitting in a very large circle. One of the leaders of the group had posed the question, "Where do you see God in this place?" I pretended to fumble through my bag, slowly and quietly, as I eavesdropped on the meaning-making in process. "A smile," one answered. "In our group's teamwork," said another. I found myself wondering what our group might say if we sat down and had a similar conversation.
The morning of our departure was slow, and lent itself quite generously to a long walk on the beach. As I stopped to rest on a pier, of which half had been washed away by Hurricane Katrina, I was no longer wondering how our group might respond to the Lutheran youth director. Instead, I was wondering how I might answer that question for myself.
The air in Mississippi March was tender. The breeze was gentle, the temperature warm, the moisture just enough to nurture me back into being. As I turned my face to the sun, I was all but consumed by this tenderness. The ocean waves were subtle, only lapping under this broken pier. The Southern drawl of passersby lulled me into something resembling what the poets call bliss. At that moment, I was sure the Tenderness that had enveloped me was God—sweet and all-consuming, utter contentment. And then I remembered that it was this very air, water, wind that had been the source of so much destruction. What to me was healing and wholeness had been to others wrath, destruction, death. I was disturbed by this reality for a moment only, before I was struck by a feeling that none of this mattered. Within my theology, this construction of God was problematic, yes.
And still there was Power. It was in that moment, and for that moment, that I was sure that God was not only in the inarticulatable tension between Tenderness and Power, Healing and Destruction—but that that tension may indeed be God. Seemingly irreconcilable, this Notion haunts me still.
God Lived in a Warehouse
A warehouse. Big. Old. Empty.
Cots. Row upon row of them.
"Be sure to keep your shoes on," the young overseer said. "This used to be a sewing factory. Rusty old needles still hide in the floorboard cracks." "Never mind," I thought. "I'll only be sleeping here for a week."
I came to Mississippi with classmates, faculty, and staff from Harvard Divinity School. We were here during our spring break, hoping to help clean up the coastal areas from the menacing fury of Hurricane Katrina. I assumed that my greatest joy would come from the work we would do with our hands and hearts: the homes we would restore; the marshes we would purify; the spirits we would console. Yet never did I dream that my ultimate joy would come from what I would observe in this ordinary old warehouse. Never did I imagine that here, in this place, I would see the face of God.
But every morning I watched them. Like eager children on Christmas morning, my fellow warehouse mates arose happily each day to the awkward humming of fluorescent lights. After forcing down an unsavory breakfast, they, like soldiers preparing for battle, armed themselves with rakes, wheelbarrows, garbage sacks, and case reports. And then they were off, marching valiantly to the battlefield of damaged homes, littered marshes, and intense counseling situations. I couldn't help but admire them. They were here of their own volition, at their own expense, giving up precious vacation time to help their brothers and sisters.
Day after day this beautiful scene in the warehouse repeated itself, my admiration growing stronger each time I observed it. "What is more praiseworthy," I thought, "than a pure desire to lift a fellow traveler? For in the end of all things, are we not all travelers, responsible for taking care of each other on this difficult journey we call life?" A familiar scripture from my Mormon faith flashed into my mind: "Wherefore, be faithful; stand in the office which I have appointed unto you; succor the weak, lift up the hands which hang down, and strengthen the feeble knees" (Doctrine and Covenants 81:5).
Here, before my eyes, I witnessed the literal embodiment of this scriptural teaching. My fellow warehouse mates showed me what it means to be faithful, to hold myself accountable for the welfare of others, to sacrifice my own comforts on the altar of human love, to show deep concern for our communities and environment.
My Sunday school teacher always told me that God lives in heaven. I don't doubt that. God can live wherever he wants. But of one thing I am certain: for one spring week in Mississippi, he lived in a warehouse.
The struggle to reconcile the devastation of a single event,
the daily struggle of the masses
Contemplating the role of the individual,
the role of the Divine
Acknowledging the pain of some,
remembering the pain of others
Choosing between a world of amusement,
a world of silent reflection
Observing the growth of some,
the stagnation of others
Witnessing for the aftermath,
the present reality of many
Remembering the cause,
forging a new future.